Boris must find the bandwidth to take on Sturgeon

GUEST POST: Eliot Wilson is Co-Founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons ClerkFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Being prime minister is not an easy job. Whether you adopt the approach of Thatcher’s four-hours-a-night, or Macmillan’s retreating to Trollope novels at moments of extreme stress, it is a position which occupies your every waking (and probably many a sleeping) moment; the situation is not helped by the fact that the vast majority of prime ministers live ‘above the shop’ in the apartment complex of 10-11 Downing Street. Time to think can be at a premium.

Boris Johnson is certainly not short of challenges to which he could devote his brain power.

Covid and Brexit are the two most obvious and pressing matters, but one could easily add the “levelling-up” agenda, HS2, the grievous state of the hospitality industry, repayment of the national debt, the examination system in schools, NHS shortages and law and order, and that would be the in-tray only half full.

Being leader of the opposition is a very different matter. The effective levers in your hands are virtually none, especially when you face a government with a healthy parliamentary majority early in the electoral cycle, and if you are not to be wholly reactive (“We think the government should have gone further…”) then thinking is one of the few things to which you can devote a lot of time.

Just before Christmas, Sir Keir Starmer made a “major” speech on devolution and the Union. 

This is the sort of parlour game into which opposition leaders are forced; those who occupy the territory willingly are political oddballs and often Liberal Democrats. The content of the speech promised a commission to examine the devolution of power, advised by former prime minister Gordon Brown.

While this is not a move which will capture the imagination on voters’ doorsteps, it is a sensible and grown-up response to the persistent popularity of the SNP in Scotland and the inexplicable perception that the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has handled the Covid crisis well.

A recent poll showed support for Scotland’s secession from the Union at 58%, which would be a comfortable plurality at a referendum. 

This is literally an existential threat to the UK: from a business point of view, secession would mean the United Kingdom losing the human capital of 5.5 million people, access to the oil and gas reserves of the North Sea, an enormous potential source of tidal and wind energy and the huge financial services sector in Edinburgh, apart from anything else. It is by no means unrealistic to imagine an independent Scotland by 2030: the government must address this.

What must worry unionists is that Boris Johnson, personally and institutionally, simply does not have the bandwidth to take the fight to the nationalists at the present time. It is often suggested that Johnson, for all his mixed heritage an ineffably English figure, is ill-suited to woo a truculent Scottish electorate.

But if not him, then who? The Labour Party lost its relevance in Scottish politics with its Westminster annihilation in 2015, and its Holyrood leader, Richard Leonard, is the sort of man who is forgettable to his own memory foam mattress. The Liberal Democrats are a harmless fringe. Faute de mieux, the battle for the Union must be an SNP/ Conservative fight.

But who is going to stand in the front line? The Scottish secretary, Alister Jack, is a landowner who looks like a refugee from a late-stage Macmillan cabinet; Baroness Davidson (as she will become) is a proven vote-winner but is only standing in at Holyrood until next May; the Scottish leader, Douglas Ross, is accident-prone and yet to find an authentic voice which resonates with the electorate north of the border.

The prime minister needs help. He needs some heavyweight unionist figures (who need not necessarily be Conservatives); he needs an ultra-smooth and highly responsive media team; and he needs some enormous brains to sit in darkened rooms and find the arguments against secession which will strike a chord with the voters.

The second and third categories should not be impossible to satisfy. The first, the cheerleaders, may prove more difficult. If anyone has any ideas, the address is 10 Downing Street, London SW1A.

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This piece was written for City AM.

The message is central: government comms in a post-Covid world

GUEST POST: Eliot Wilson is Co-Founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons Clerk. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Only the most loyal and optimistic Downing Street hanger-on would now argue that the Government has had ‘a good war’ when it comes to the media handling of the pandemic. The failings of the Number 10 operation and the Government Communication Service more widely have been laid painfully bare almost day by day: confusion, changing vocabulary, unclear advice and an inconsistent cast. For every unexpected star like Professor Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy Chief Medical Officer, there has been a Priti Patel, announcing proudly that shoplifting has fallen while retail has been largely closed for business.

In any event, Number 10 has decided to respond to this series of failures, and has hit upon a structural review. The Government’s media operation will be centralised in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, and the daily briefings, deemed by some a success – “event TV” was one phrase I have heard – will be built upon. Most excitingly, for a media built on the cultivation of personality, there will be an “experienced broadcaster” selected to present these briefings, who will be the face of the Government to many people. It will be a political appointment, and insiders say they would like a woman to get the job.

This is obviously a potential revolution in how the government communicates. If the briefings are televised, even if only in highlights, and feature heavily as soundbites on the news of the day (and they will), the new ‘spokesperson’ will, after the Prime Minister, be probably the most recognisable person in the administration, certainly the one with the most airtime. She (let’s assume Downing Street has its wish) will be in charge of media relations, with a powerful influence over the news agenda on a daily, if not hourly, basis, but she will also have a direct line of communication with the voting public. That is a hugely powerful platform.

Critics have already dismissed this move as ‘presidential’ and an Americanised gimmick. That’s hardly a vote of confidence to look at the hapless succession of White House press secretaries in recent years – Sean Spicer? Sarah Huckabee? The scrappy-but-ineffectual incumbent, Kayleigh McEnany? – and, while handsomely paid, they have not lasted nor had much influence.

The brightest star was Anthony Scaramucci, director of communications for all of 11 days (and with whom I have worked a little). The Mooch is a different kettle of fish: voluble, outgoing, eccentric; self-made, self-assured and self-confident. He was too big, too outrageous, a beast to be kept in the Trump circus for long. Personally – I found – he is affable, courteous and charming, but too quickly he was the message and not the medium. He is now one of the president’s most avowed and entrenched opponents on the Republican side of the aisle.

Traditionalists in the UK dislike the bright clothes and snowy-white teeth of American political staffers, and dismiss them as lightweights. By their logic, as on the Potomac, so by the Thames. Maybe, maybe not. It is perfectly conceivable that the Government might find a respected and serious media figure with genuine heft: the mighty Emily Maitlis might not be ideologically simpatico but would be a formidable hire, Fiona Bruce and Victoria Derbyshire both have impressive CVs and skills, and one can imagine Sophie Raworth or Kirsty Wark ably controlling a rowdy press pack. So we should not write this off ad hominem (or ad feminam).

What should concern people is the structural change in the way the Government speaks to people. If there is a single figure with a daily communion with millions of voters, what does that say about the supposedly inviolable practice of ministers making statements in Parliament, to which they are accountable? How much more comfortable would HMG be delivering brightly wrapped nuggets of good news to a selected audience than have a member of the Cabinet slog through an hour of questions from Members of Parliament after an oral statement?

And how far does influence run both ways? Would this new spokesperson begin to be involved in the creation and shaping of policy as well as its presentation and delivery? Good PR practice says that your comms team should be engaged right from the beginning, able to contribute to a project as part of an organic whole. Is the same true for Whitehall? Would the new figure sit ion on policy-shaping meetings, advising from the outset what might and might not ‘fly’? That would be a major point of interest for Whitehall scrutineers like the excellent Institute for Government.

No-one with any experience in public relations or comms would say the Government’s media operation is flawless. It’s arguably not even very good, and some hard thinking (and new hires) are almost certainly needed. But that doesn’t make any change the right change. This idea of centralisation round a new figurehead would make me uneasy if I were a civil servant, a MP or a journalist. Be careful what you wish for.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for The Telegraph.